China vs. India; India vs. China.
The great debate about liberal democracy will not be decided in debating societies or even in deliberative governmental bodies. It is being played out on a grand scale in the competition between India and China.
You see, China has achieved extraordinary economic growth over the past three decades without holding democratic elections. One notes that it has chosen a series of highly competent political leaders. The people who have been running China these many years are not vainglorious political hacks.
The notion of prosperity without democracy irritates idealists. They believe that liberal democracy and free enterprise must function in tandem.
For many years now, serious thinkers have been predicting that China will suffer an economic collapse, or at least a political rebellion from the oppressed masses. More sophisticated thinkers, people who do not really care who does or does not starve, will tell you that the Chinese people have been provided with jobs and opportunity and wealth and consumer goods… in order to dispossess them of their political freedom.
Besides, they will add, China is immensely polluted, filthy beyond human imagination or endurance. Rapid industrialization without liberal democracy has a price.
If China becomes the role model for developing countries around the world, the triumph of liberal democracy will not seem quite as inevitable as it once did.
Those who wish to promote an alternative to China often light on the largest democracy in the world: India.
For now the per capita GDP of China is more than twice that of India, so the world’s largest democracy has some catching up to do.
Thus, I was amazed to read an article in the New York Times yesterday about the living conditions in India. The article’s author, Times New Delhi bureau chief Gardiner Harris has just finished his tour in India. Harris, you see, is being reassigned. From the perspective of his family, not a minute too soon.
You see, the air and the water in New Delhi are polluted to the point that they have seriously damaged the health of Harris’s son, Bram.
In Harris’s words:
FOR weeks the breathing of my 8-year-old son, Bram, had become more labored, his medicinal inhaler increasingly vital. And then, one terrifying night nine months after we moved to this megacity, Bram’s inhaler stopped working and his gasping became panicked.
My wife called a friend, who recommended a private hospital miles away. I carried Bram to the car while my wife brought his older brother. India’s traffic is among the world’s most chaotic, and New Delhi’s streets are crammed with trucks at night, when road signs become largely ornamental. We undertook one of the most frightening journeys of our lives, with my wife in the back seat cradling Bram’s head.
When we arrived, doctors infused him with steroids (and refused to provide further treatment until a $1,000 charge on my credit card went through). A week later, Bram was able to return home.
Sadly, it was not an uncommon occurrence:
We gradually learned that Delhi’s true menace came from its air, water, food and flies. These perils sicken, disable and kill millions in India annually, making for one of the worst public health disasters in the world. Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.
How bad was it?
Sarath Guttikunda, one of India’s top pollution researchers, who moved to Goa, on the west coast of India, to protect his two young children, was unequivocal: “If you have the option to live elsewhere, you should not raise children in Delhi.”
These and other experts told me that reduced lung capacity in adults is a highly accurate predictor of early death and disability — perhaps more than elevated blood pressure or cholesterol. So by permanently damaging their lungs in Delhi, our children may not live as long.
And then there are nascent areas of research suggesting that pollution can lower children’s I.Q., hurt their test scores and increase the risks ofautism, epilepsy, diabetes and even adult-onset diseases like multiple sclerosis.
But, we imagine, it must be much worse in China. After all, India is a democracy and in democratic nations the people will never tolerate poisoned air and water. Besides, a democratic nation must have an environmental lobby. A capitalist bastion like China is not forced to respond to will of the people... right?
Apparently, this is not the case. When it comes to pollution India is in a class by itself. It far exceeds China… and China is certainly not a model of clean air and water.
… the air and the mounting research into its effects [in India] have become so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here. Similar discussions are doubtless underway in Beijing and other Asian megacities, but it is in Delhi — among the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth — where the new calculus seems most urgent. The city’s air is more than twice as polluted as Beijing’s, according to the World Health Organization. (India, in fact, has 13 of the world’s 25 most polluted cities, while Lanzhou is the only Chinese city among the worst 50; Beijing ranks 79th.)
Of course, Harris is questioning whether he or any other expatriate ought reasonably to subject his children to the pollution that infests the air and water of New Delhi.
China might be better than India in this regard, but still expatriates in Beijing pose the same question.
Surely, it is an interesting question, but it implies that people have a choice in the matter. Other nations also have a choice. They can decide to emulate the Chinese example or the example set by Indian democracy.
Unfortunately, despite their having the vote the citizens of New Delhi probably do not find that a consolation for the conditions in which they are forced to bring up their children.